Hey, this is pretty awesome. The folks at EdAgree are giving away two vouchers for the TOEFL iBT every month until the end of the year! Winners will be able to take the test for free!
You can register for the contest at their page. All it takes is an email address! But just enter one time. Winners will be selected at the beginning of each month, and will be contacted via email.
I’ve written about EdAgree a few times here in the past. They are an ETS spin-off which helps international students connect to universities in America. My blog post about their SpeechRater practice tool was really popular with visitors. They’ve also got workshops on topics including how to write a personal statement for your university application. Actually, I think I might sit in on that seminar next week
Well, I find that having a public to-do list increases my accountability a little bit (and I managed to finish everything on last month’s list), so here’s what I want to get done in the next month or two:
Done: Start a blog post tracking schools that do and do not accept the TOEFL Essentials Test.
Done: Blog post: “The TOEFL is not (just) an English Test”
Blog post: Followup to the changing the TOEFL post with input from other teachers
One new sample essay, based on the “how to improve the environment” prompt that comes up now and again
One new speaking sample
2021 Essay templates, with a video combining both
One new TOEFL Essentials writing video (but only if I can find more than five schools that will accept the test)
Finally, I got my first issue of “History Today” magazine (the June issue). I really enjoyed an article about English king Alfred the Great and whether he actually was great. Alas, you’ll need a subscription to read that one (which you can get really, really cheap over here). There are couple of free articles from this month, though:
Blood, Stone and Holy Bones discusses the concept of Holy Relics (that is artifacts of Christian saints) and how travelers to the Middle East related to them in the middle ages. I recall writing a very long essay on this topic when I was in university.
Before I close, I must mention that I published another TOEFL book review this month! You can find my comments about Barron’s TOEFL Writing over here.
In 2018, ETS published a report on the use of their e-rater technology in assessing the GRE essays. I am a stupid man and it is hard for me to read academic articles. But I still return to this article now and again to see what I can find.
My “TOEFL Gangnam Style” series of blog posts this month inspired me to take yet another look at the article to see if it had anything to say about the topic of memorized essays. I was pleased to find that it did explain this phenomenon somewhat. Regarding how ETS’s human raters treat this kind of “shell text,” when grading GRE essays it reports (emphasis mine):
The raters also found the use of shell text along with the text that is part of the writing prompt/question prevalent across the essay responses of test takers from China, particularly for argument, resulting in three-paragraph-long responses but suffering from lack of ideas and poor language. The raters identified instances of the use of generic (non-content-specific) statements, syntactic repetition at the beginning of each paragraph, repetition of ideas around generic statements or prompt text, and lack of cohesion in the essay after the first few memorized sentences as cues to shell text. The raters understood that test takers from China frequently use shell text, but they do not view shell text as problematic or as a negative style of writing. They emphasized that they are trained to be neutral to the use of shell text and that they look for original ideas and content beyond the shell text in the response to determine the appropriate score. In some cases, they expressed the idea that the examinees are able to use shell text cleverly to enhance the structure and framework of their responses without compromising originality, cohesion, and content .
How about that? That’s the first I’ve heard about how ETS raters handle templates. I repeat: “they are trained to be neutral to the use of shell text.”
But more interesting:
Presently, human raters are trained in scoring to identify and treat any shell text neutrally while scoring the essay response. The e-rater lacks any such training presently and may be overscoring essays with the heavy presence of shell text.
Yeah, it probably is.
For TOEFL teachers, the thing to take away from the article is that the shell text (template) is not tricking the human raters into giving higher scores. They are treating that text neutrally. It is the e-rater that may be getting tricked, as it reports that Chinese students are getting much higher scores from the e-rater than from the human raters. That’s the point!
The article suggests that e-rater could be adjusted to include some kind of shell-text detection to lower this discrepancy. I do not know if that has been implemented since the research was done. Keep an eye on Chinese and Korean writing scores when the TOEFL score data for 2020 is reported this summer.
Anyways, this study was done with GRE essays, so take it with a grain of salt. To me, it seems to explain some of what was observed in the original “Gangnam Style” article in Assessing Writing that inspired this whole blog series. But I could be wrong.
Note: A much older article confirms that Chinese students get higher e-rater scores than human scores on the TOEFL, but it doesn’t talk about shell text. It also points out that Korean students get higher e-rater scores as well (but the difference is slighter).
The TOEFL was successfully revised in 2019. The changes introduced at that time created a better experience for test-takers and score users. That said, there are a few things that could be improved about the overall TOEFL experience. Here are ten things I think ought to be done to improve the TOEFL.
Of course I am neither a linguist or a tech-bro, so I’m not qualified to comment on actual test content, so my suggests are about everything but the test itself.
I’m going to share this list with fellow teachers and students to see what they would change about the test experience. I’ll publish their ideas in a few weeks time.
Eliminate the $20 fee for sending scores after the test administration. This fee seems a bit excessive. The scores are sent via the Internet, so the markup must be astronomical. How much can it cost ETS to send these? The fee looks particularly bad now that we’ve learned that TOEFL Essentials scores can be sent to an infinite number of schools at no cost… using the same system.
Fix the Official Guide to the TOEFL. The writing content in the book is pretty bad. The sample integrated writing question in chapter six isn’t accurate. Nor is the sample integrated writing question in sample test one. I appreciate that the big list of sample independent prompts was cleaned up a bit in the sixth edition, but there is still room for improvement there. This bad content has been carried through from the first edition of the book, published 16 years ago. Some of this content is leftover from the TOEFL CBT. On a more positive note, as of the latest editions the two official tests books are now full of perfect tests!
Get rid of the cancel scores button. This is something that ETS seems really proud of. I often hear them mentioning how this sets them apart from all other tests. But what’s the point? When it is better for students to send no scores than to send low scores? I can’t think of a situation where it will be a good idea to cancel the scores. Meanwhile, the only time I ever hear students talking about this feature is when they accidentally click the button and are panicking about how to reactivate their scores. And cancelling the scores robs them of the opportunity to learn their writing and speaking levels.
Implement a modern support system. ETS ought to use Zendesk or some similar service to streamline their user support. Too often my advice to students is to just call the support number and wait on hold for a few hours. Not only that, but the answers to common questions are spread out over way too many individual pages on the TOEFL website. Some of them are buried in the Information Bulletin PDF file. I think they even have a fax number still operating. There is room for a more responsive and modern system, like Duolingo uses for their test.
Provide More Practice Tests. I believe that Cambridge provides 68 practice IELTS tests across its range of official publications. In contrast, ETS provides 14 in its books. And some of those 14 tests are pretty darn old. Why not produce a new collection of samples once per year, as Cambridge does? Students would be happy and the test would become a lot more transparent.
Active. Noise. Cancelling. Headphones.
Rephrase the word count recommendations. Once of the most common misunderstandings I hear from students is that there is a word count “limit” in each of the essay tasks. I think this misunderstanding is due to poor phrasing in the writing section directions. Even just including a line like “there is no penalty for exceeding this word count” will clear this problem up right away.
Make the test prep more fair. ETS has licensed out more than fifty practice tests (the famous TPO sets) to big Chinese companies like KMF and New Oriental. That means that for a very low fee students in China can easily access a ton of accurate practice materials via responsive online platforms. I believe that ETS has also licensed their e-rater and SpeechRater technologies to Chinese firms, giving Chinese students low-cost access to automated scoring for their practice TOEFL responses. In contrast, students in the rest of the world have access to just four practice tests ($45 each) plus a few partial tests. I don’t think this is fair. I think that everyone should have the same access to official practice materials and retired tests.
Be a bit more transparent about the e-rater and SpeechRater scoring engines. I suspect that I have read more research into these technologies than anyone outside of New Jersey (editor’s note: weird flex, but okay), and they are still a bit of a black box to me. I don’t even know how the human rater and the AI raters are weighted.
Modernize the voucher system. I want to start a TOEFL scholarship where I give a voucher to some lucky student every few months. Sometimes I just want to buy vouchers for favored students. But to do that I need to scribble my credit card number on a piece of paper and fax it to Princeton. And any vouchers that I get are locked to specific countries. Come on, guys. Figure it out.
It is a great day for the world, everyone! The new TOEFL Bulletin has been published. You know, one of my great regrets in life is that I wasn’t active as a teacher back when ETS distributed hard copies of this document.
Here’s what’s new in this year’s edition (I have omitted superficial and minor changes):
Page 5: The TOEFL Home Edition is described.
Page 7: ProctorU is mentioned in the list of contacts. It also suggests that users can contact ETS via the chat function on their website.
Page 9: The word “drinks” was changed to “beverages.”
Page 9: There is another reference to the home edition.
Page 11: Western Union is no longer offered as a payment option. This matches changes to the ETS website a few months ago. The link to the score posting dates has been removed.
Page 12: The test frequency has been adjusted to reflect the Home Edition.
Page 12: The new guide mentions that “late phone registration” closes five days before the test date. The old version didn’t mention phone registration.
Page 12: The guide no longer links to “toeflgoanywhere.com”. It seems like ETS has largely stopped using that site.
Page 13: ETS will now collect sales taxes for things like late registration and score reviews. I suppose this is an effective fee increase. Previously, students were supposed to send the sales tax to their local government themselves. LOL.
Page 13: There is now a long paragraph about credit card failures. I suspect ETS has seen statistics about how often purchases fail. It might help.
Page 14: No more Western Union. I understand that Western Union is not great (to say the least) but it is too bad that students no longer have this option.
Page 15: The line “test center staff can’t make schedule changes for you” has been removed. Weird.
Page 16: More Home Edition references.
Page 23: More Home Edition references.
Page 29: Scores are now reported “6-10” days after the test. The old version says that they are reported “6” days after.
Page 30: Scores now range of “0” to 30 points instead of “1” to 30 points. This is a correction.
Page 32: A reference to requesting score reviews by fax has been dropped.
ETS has just uploaded a chart to convert between TOEFL iBT and TOEFL Essentials scores. I’ve copied it here for you, but be sure to check out the main TOEFL Essentials Page for more information, including conversion charts for each section of the test.
Soon I will start a list of schools that accept the test, and I will maintain it until ETS publishes their own list.
Bloomberg recently published an interesting article about a “crackdown” on private education in China. According to Bloomberg’s report “the country’s education ministry plans to create a dedicated division to oversee all private education platforms for the first time, according to people familiar with the matter.” As a result, the “mega-IPOs” of several private education firms have been delayed.
The move “centers not just on reckless pricing or advertising but also on the widening divide between the haves and have-nots — those who can afford to load up on extra lessons. To that end, officials laid out a plethora of restrictions this month including limiting the after-school tuition fees companies can charge.”
Bloomberg also suggests that this is part of a larger effort to curb the power and influence of large tech companies, noting that the “government in general is keen to curtail the growing influence of internet giants like Tencent and Alibaba, among the industry’s biggest backers, through a series of regulatory probes and record fines.”
I spoke to a teacher at one of the these large education firms, who noted that the restrictions mostly focus on tutoring centered on domestic education, and that preparation for tests like the TOEFL, SAT and GRE has not been affected to date.
Echoing the comments from Bloomberg, this teacher noted:
“like 40% of all students are taking extracurricular courses to stay ahead, while the other 60% are busting their balls trying to catch up… [and] have complained about this since god knows when.”
The changes, he said, will “drastically impact the income” of his employer.
I also spoke to the owner of a small private tutoring center with just a handful of employees. He noted:
“I don’t really know how it could be enforced though. Some people feel it’s just not realistic, but the government tends to get what it wants here, so people are definitely nervous.”
This nervousness has encouraged him to accelerate efforts to bring more of his work online.
That said, he noted that the government’s move
“might mean everyone is fair game, no matter what kind of program they offer. It’s such a huge part of the economy though, so I am still struggling to see why they would target this industry at a time when the global economy is still shaky.”
There are a few good TOEFL books. There are a lot of bad ones. I hope this article helps you make the right choices. I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find a list of stuff I don’t like, and a list of stuff that will be published in the future. You can also skip to my master index of TOEFL book reviews.
Last Updated: June 25. 2021
For an Overview of the Test…
The Official Guide to the TOEFL (6th Edition) is the best overview of the test. Everyone who is studying for the TOEFL (or teaching for the TOEFL) should have a copy. It describes all four sections of the test and the question types in each section. It also includes plenty of examples and four complete practice tests. Note that is also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particularly in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test). For a closer look at the test, check out my complete review.
For an additional overview of the test, I recommend a couple of online courses from our friends at TST Prep. First up, check out their Score Builder Program, which is a twenty hour course covering the entire test. The program also includes ten practice test and a bunch of extras. A cheaper alternative is their TOEFL Emergency Course, which is a bit shorter. In both cases, try the coupon code “goodine10off” to get a 10% discount on your purchase.
Finally, I recommend Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th edition). This book has improved quite a lot in the past couple of editions, and I think it can be a valuable study tool. The accuracy of its practice tests and questions isn’t as good as the above two sources, but there is quite a lot of content in the book. It contains eight complete practice tests along with additional practice questions. It contains decent chapters on vocabulary and grammar.
For Practice TOEFL Tests…
First up, I recommend Volume One and Volume Two of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests Collection. Each book contains five good practice tests. The most recent editions (look for their green covers) were heavily revised by ETS, and finally represent perfect practice tests! Everyone preparing for the TOEFL must complete these practice tests. All of them!
Next I recommend the ten practice tests sold online by TST Prep. These are the best practice tests you will get from a third-party publisher. Again, try the coupon code “goodine10off” for a 10% discount. Note that they are the same tests you will find in the Score Builder Program mentioned above.
As a special bonus, they’ve also got one test available as an e-book on Amazon. I’m credited as an editor on that test!
For TOEFL Reading…
I really like Kathy Spratt’s “Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT“. Now in its third edition, it is viewed by most students and teachers as the definitive TOEFL reading book. Indeed, it’s the only one I recommend. It covers all of the TOEFL reading question types and provides strategies that might help you solve them. It is updated for the new TOEFL.
For TOEFL Listening, Speaking and Writing…
Well, there isn’t much available for these sections of the test. There are a few old scraps you might check out, though. They are:
Magoosh TOEFL has some good material about the listening section in their course. The course also contains some good content about the reading section, and some bad content about the speaking and writing sections. You can read my complete review.
I don’t usually recommend TOEFL vocabulary books. I don’t think that studying vocabulary lists is helpful, and the new TOEFL introduced in 2019 has fewer vocabulary questions. That said, students always ask me to recommend books. I generally suggests that they get “Essential Words for the TOEFL” from Barron’s. I like the difficulty level of the words, and it contains a bunch of realistic practice questions. As an alternative, you might check out McGraw-Hill’s “400 Words for the TOEFL.” It contains practice questions as well.
The first point is that this book has inaccurate practice questions. It seems quite clear that the book was originally based on a very close reading of the first edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL (which you can borrow from the Open Library) and has not been revised to reflect more recent developments. That’s problematic, as the first Official Guide was mostly written before the iBT even launched, and it contains quite a few bad questions. Both of its integrated questions are totally unlike what is used on the real test. It also contains a big list of independent questions that were used on the old TOEFL CBT.
Sadly, the Barron’s book reproduces these flaws. It contains a bunch of integrated questions based on two paragraph articles (instead of four like on the real test), and some that are descriptive instead of argumentative. The former flaw is right out of the first Official Guide. To my eye, only one single integrated writing question in the book (the one about Shakespeare) resembles the real test. Meanwhile, the parts of the book about the independent writing question mostly reproduce the exact questions included in the Official Guide, including a lot of open-ended questions that will never show up on the real test. The end result of all of this is that students will be confused on test day, and will waste their time studying in an inefficient way.
It has been sixteen years since the TOEFL iBT launched. The editors of this book need to read some of the materials published by ETS in the years since the launch to gain a better idea of what the real test is like. A quick perusal of the sixth edition of the Official Guide, as well as the two Official iBT Tests books will give them a clear idea of how to write accurate integrated questions.
The second point I want to emphasize is that the book does have some fantastic stuff about creating essays. I love the sections about how to craft clear thesis statements. It also has sections on parallel structures and vocabulary variation, which are topics I have to teach my students about every week. Not only that, but it has an amazing bit about writing simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. That is critically important subject material, and no other TOEFL book touches on it. It is a shame that this wonderful content is paired up with such shoddy practice questions.
I really want to love this book. The other two TOEFL books in the Barron’s line have improved quite a lot in recent editions. My hope is that this one improves just as much when the eighth edition is published.
Note: Barron’s sometimes has problems with its online audio files. I haven’t checked them all. Good luck.
Buried in an article in the “Learning English” section of Voice of America is some news about which schools will accept the new TOEFL Essentials Test:
Some schools like Temple University Law School, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the University of San Francisco have told ETS they will accept results from the new test. And ETS said it will publish a list of universities that intend to accept the Essentials test after the first phase of testing.
That’s nice. In the near future I will start a blog post that lists schools which will accept the test.
Ha ha. I am a TOEFL essay machine now. This took about three minutes to create using my fake essay template, and I think it looks pretty decent.
The prompt is:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better for children to grow up in the countryside than in a large city. Use specific reasons and examples to develop your essay.
The Essay is:
A lot of people today think that we should live in the city. However, I strongly believe that it is much better for kids to live in the country for two reasons. First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities. Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays. To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that cities are the best place for young people to live. That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.
First, life in the countryside can improve our range of job opportunities in the future. As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that living in the countryside is actually quite dangerous. When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion. At that time, I thought the lack of businesses in the country would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it. However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of rural life. Now I realize that the presence of agriculture can help us find employment in high paying fields. For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to growing organic crops. His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on farming at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.
Second, life in the countryside has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health. I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago. It pointed out that if we properly use hiking trails we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays. The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of rural sports. Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that rural lifestyles will have an even greater impact in the future because of the clean air in the countryside. Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from life away from crowded cities is a fantastic way to stay healthy.
In conclusion, I think that it is best for young people to live in the countryside. This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.